Power and Glory (fourth season of Danish small screen series Borgen) is gripping viewing, I have to admit. But it’s a different calibre of drama from the first three seasons, which had me hooked because all the main characters were so tenderly human, especially the protagonist Birgitte Nyborg, the first female prime minister of Denmark. And the tension between realpolitik and idealism was perfectly balanced for a drama about national political machinations.
This new season of Borgen – Power and Glory plumbs the dark side, and the stakes are higher. In fact, I can almost see the clever inhabitants of the writer’s room egging each other on to push the characters beyond breaking point, which just invites Machiavellian cynicism in my view. Power and Glory has the same feel as many Netflix hits (it’s been compared to House of Cards often) – there’s snappily paced dialogue, exhilarating plot maneuvres, and exquisite cinematography (much of this series was shot in icy blue Greenland). All engrossing, but in these dark days dominated by COVID news, I prefer to be left with a little more inspiration that sprouts from a politics of hope when I turn off my screen.
Of course, Power and Glory may appeal exactly because it reflects the mood of our current times. The first three seasons came out between 2010-2013, decidedly brighter days than we’re experiencing now. And perhaps Borgen’s first incarnation felt more optimistic because it coincided with our own (Australia’s) first female PM Julia Guillard’s era, when some of us, including me, were just more politically hopeful.
But I still feel that when this revival series got the Netflix makeover, which is to say its drama polished for international appeal, it lost some the humanity that made the initial three seasons wistfully exciting, romantically brave, and what felt to me like an authentic portrayal of a woman in power. The original series had more soul.
In the first three Borgen seasons, most of the narrative centered on internal Danish politics – political scheming within the minority parties that make up the coalition government. Nyborg (played by Sidse Babett Knudsen) goes through divorce, countless political compromises, risks political backlash to take leave to be with her mentally ill daughter, and all her conflicts felt like inner conflicts. Nyborg’s biggest battles were with herself, her beliefs, her loyalties, her family commitments, her health – and despite losing some of these battles, her wins didn’t feel triumphant. She wins because she overcomes. And that feels like a decidedly gendered win to me.
In the last eight episodes, Nyborg is no longer PM but foreign minister, and the conflicts are external and global in scale: US-China-Russia geopolitics, climate change, the fate of all Greenlanders. In comparison, her internal conflicts are expressed as a battle against hot flushes and sudden onset of periods – she’s in her fifties and experiencing perimenopausal symptoms. She’s losing control of her body, and often gets a bit shouty, suggesting she’s losing a grip on herself too.
Conflating the distinctly female experience of menopause with loss of control is definitely a commentary on women and power. In season three, Nyborg went through a breast cancer scare, and I ‘enjoyed’ this plot line because as she overcomes this, she becomes a better politician, a mother more in tune with her kids, and we get to experience how the vulnerable female body (a huge political battleground, let’s face it!) becomes a source of political strength. The menopause subplot just felt to me like this last season of Borgen lost touch with its feminine side.
The very last episode does end with a ‘gendered win’ for Nyborg though, and I was relieved because I saw again what initially excited me about Borgen – that the storytelling explores and therefore validates the experiences, the choices, the compromises, and the wins of women who are too rarely in power, and can wield their power like a woman.
Power and Glory is a Danish political drama released on Netflix in Australia in June, 2022. Seasons 1-3 can also be seen on SBS On Demand.
Here are some reviews of Power and Glory: